Border security is a key sticking point in this year’s immigration debate, but only a little more than one-third of senators have been to the southwestern border during their time in office to get a firsthand look at the security situation, according to a survey of the chamber’s members by The Washington Times.
Of 100 senators, 34 said they have been down to observe the border, 64 senators have not, and two — the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is writing the bill, and the chamber’s Republican leader — refused to answer.
Those on all sides of the immigration debate agree that chances for passing a bill legalizing illegal immigrants and overhauling the legal system hinges on whether voters think the border is secure.
President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano have said the border is secure and that the only way to improve it is to legalize illegal immigrants, which they argue will help authorities focus on illegal crossings and major criminals.
But lawmakers journeying to the border to see for themselves often come back with a different impression.
“It doesn’t help when you have the Department of Homeland Security secretary testifying that the border is already secure, and yet you have senators returning from weekend visits to the border as recently as this weekend and telling us that they personally witness people crossing, including people from as far away as Afghanistan,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who made a high-profile visit to the El Paso, Texas, segment of the border this year.
“There is a real concern about those things and we’ve got to address that. If we can address that, we will have immigration reform. If we cannot, this will be another failed effort,” he said.
Those who have been to the border say they have seen both successes and challenges — and in many instances have shared their findings with the public through messages or photos on social media.
In one incident, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, was showing colleagues the border in March when they saw a woman climb over a border barrier right in front of them.
“Just witnessed a woman successfully climb an 18-ft bollard fence a few yards from us in #Nogales,” Mr. McCain tweeted. “Border Patrol successfully apprehended her, but incident is another reminder that threats to our border security are real.”
‘Better understand the situation’
The border begins at the Gulf of Mexico and runs 1,951 miles to the Pacific Ocean, along the way tracking rivers, cutting through ecologically fragile deserts and going over rugged mountains.
Border communities say they have seen dramatic changes over the past two decades as illegal immigration surged, then began to drop as first the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have boosted patrols and added technology.
Those who go come back with stories both good and bad.
Ranches that have been owned by the same family for five or six generations are struggling to survive, and some national parks along the border have been overrun by illegal activity and law enforcement. But the border also generates billions of dollars of commerce a day and is home to some of the safest communities in the U.S. in terms of crime rates.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has made visits this year to several border hot spots and said they have been eye-opening.
“Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand,” Mr. Carper told his committee colleagues Tuesday. “That’s why I’ve tried to visit as much of the border region as I can.”
Mr. Carper said he has seen firsthand the technology that has helped reduce illegal crossings in the Arizona desert, but it is not clear that those methods will transfer to the thickly vegetated areas along the Rio Grande in Texas.
He said one thing he learned is that the flow of illegal immigrants from Central American nations is growing and that the Senate bill doesn’t sufficiently address that problem.
All eight senators from the four southwestern border states have visited the border.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, said his border visits — including one last week — remind him that border security is just one of many elements in the complex immigration debate.
He said it is helpful for lawmakers to tour a port of entry and to get a sense of cross-border commerce, and to sit down with the families that have been torn apart by the current immigration policy.
“The more real it is for legislators, the better we are going to be able to come up with a set of policies and laws that are more functional than they are today,” Mr. Heinrich said. “I think it makes you better understand the situation and get away from the rhetoric and ideology and get into the details of how we actually” face the issue.
‘Gang of Eight’
The Times surveyed members and their offices to ask whether they had visited the border during their time in office. The Times received responses from almost all of them.
Of the 34 who said they have been to the border, 18 are Republicans and 16 are Democrats.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee that begins voting on the bill this week, told The Times that he doesn’t “do polls.” A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he doesn’t answer surveys.
Of the eight senators who wrote the Senate immigration bill, The Times survey found that seven have visited the border. They include Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who made his first trip this year and saw the woman cross the fence.
He said the political pilgrimage was a “revelation” and “you can read and you can study and you can talk, but until you see things it doesn’t become reality.”
“I’ll be able to explain this to my colleagues. Many of my colleagues say, ‘Why do we need to do anything more on the border?’ and we do. We should do more,” he said at the time.
The one senator involved in writing the bill who hasn’t visited the border is Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat.
Some senators seemed fine with having missed out on taking a look.
“I haven’t, and I don’t especially want to go,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat who will retire next year at the end of his third term in the chamber.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, was more creative in answering the question. Citing her experience on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and her support of strong borders, Ms. Milkulsi said she has been there “by proxy.”
A number of lawmakers, meanwhile, said that they have been to the U.S.-Canada border, which they said also poses security threats and deserves attention.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, pointed to a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office that said “the terrorist threat on the northern border is higher, given the large expanse of area with limited law enforcement coverage.”
Several lawmakers made the trip before they were elected to Congress.
Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said he traveled there during the 2006 election campaign. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, said she traveled to the southern border during her 2010 Senate race.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, visited the border as governor to see his state’s National Guard troops whom President George W. Bush had deployed to help assist the Border Patrol in building fencing and other infrastructure.
Others had been to the area, but not for border security reasons.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, traveled to Texas in the 1990s as a member of the House to show his opposition to “fast track” authority for trade agreements. Sen. Bernard Sanders’ office said the Vermont independent traveled to “Juarez to visit maquiladora factories, but not specifically to look at border security.”
• Tom Howell Jr. and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.